America has a knack for dismissing history as merely a past from which we have moved on. This limited perspective is one reason why, over half a century after the civil rights movement, social injustices like that which took place in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black 18-year-old was shot and killed by a white police officer, are still occurring.
However, the Boston school district is taking a step by improving its curriculum to broaden its students’ social and political perspectives. The district decided last month to teach the city’s desegregation and busing history, which represents a vital microcosm of change in America’s larger struggle to grapple with its history.
The Boston Globe reported that on the first day of desegregation in Boston, in September 1974, white anti-busing demonstrators threw bricks and screamed racial slurs at the black students being bused from Roxbury to South Boston High. Riot police were called in.
This turbulent history of desegregation is just one overlooked part of America’s racial past.
It can become easy for our generation to be complacent and think that equality has been achieved and that racism in America is over just because we didn’t live through the civil rights movement or experience desegregation. But just 40 years ago in this very city, white people boycotted the attendance of black students at their school.
By adding this education to their curriculum, Boston’s public schools are forcing students to confront their naivete. According to the Globe, this is the first time the district has officially integrated desegregation into public education. As the noted writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin wrote in his essay A Letter to My Nephew, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” If we don’t understand the past, we won’t recognize it being repeated in the present, or the future, and thus lack necessary empathy.
Baldwin wrote this letter to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, yet many of the arguments and points that he makes still ring true today, over 50 years later. He writes to his nephew regarding what he saw as the country’s ongoing racism and injustice, “I know your countrymen do not agree with me and I hear them saying, ‘You exaggerate.’ They do not know Harlem and I do. So do you.”
It is vital that America is honest and critical of its past, so as to build a better future. By teaching our young students about the desegregation in the cities that they call home, those important narratives will remain in our historical memory. As Baldwin said, ignorance is born of a misunderstanding of truth, and we shouldn’t foster that in our country if we wish to create equality for all.
The Globe reported that opposition to the district’s decision to address desegregation in school grew mostly out of the fact that “for decades, many Bostonians were afraid of dredging up the past and sharing their feelings about it.” But we cannot be afraid to talk about such things.
The truth is often painful, jarring, and upsetting. But ignorance can only be worse. In comparison, according to PBS, learning about the Holocaust and Nazis is mandatory in German schools, and almost all students have visited either a concentration camp or a Holocaust memorial. In an interview with PBS, Lars Rensmann, a political science professor, said that he stresses the negative effects of prejudiced thinking. Rensmann also noted that it is a common reaction for people to delegate guilt onto others to avoid confronting one's country’s collective history.
In the opening of his 1955 book Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin revisited the reason for comprehensive understanding of the history of injustice toward people of color in this country. “In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back,” he wrote. “But I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”
Until white Americans are willing to admit that this country was built by slave labor, that human beings taken from their homelands against their will constructed the Capitol itself, and that horrible injustices have been enacted upon people of color, we will not be able to truly move towards equality. White Americans must realize that the repercussions of this nation’s slave history are a part of our identity. It is only by accepting this truth that America can be more open, honest, and aware of the way that ugly history is still playing out across the country.